Star Rating: ★★★★★
Triumphantly bringing live performance back to Clapham’s The Bread & Roses Theatre, I and the Village is a beautifully tragic exposé on the treatment of asylum seekers by housing them in the Direct Provision accommodation used in the Republic of Ireland. The centres often being labelled a human rights issue and unnecessarily cruel, as delays in the inevitably flawed system mean applicants can remain in them for years awaiting a decision on their right to remain with very little freedoms afforded to them. Situated in a cramped ladies dorm-room of one of these centres, Darren Donohue‘s piece is therefore, incredibly poignant, doing much to convey the feeling of limbo and invisibility these asylum seekers must feel when not knowing, faced with potentially years of waiting for a decision, often separated from their families, unable to seek employment or start rebuilding their lives. As well as the inevitable struggle to hold on to a sense of identity when being house like an animal, living-in and sharing small cramped rooms, forced to comply with rules designed to limit and tame them, from what they can have in their rooms, when they can go out, when and where they can eat and more.
The narrative itself, follows Keicha and Jeta as they await decisions on their status to remain in Ireland. Sharing a room, their memories and fantasies seep into the dank walls merging into one story. With Keicha being trapped in a world somewhere between the centre and her home in Nigeria, she suffers from PTSD spurred on from the trauma of losing her daughter to the Boko Haram, never truly knowing her fate left only speculating the worst. Jeta, a well-educated, Zimbabwean fugitive, who used to speak up on human rights issues despite the risk of it, thus sees her friend Keicha’s fragility and in a bid to protect her, plays along with the fantasy world, Jeta imploring new arrival eighteen-year-old Hannah to do the same. As the fantasies and memories are played out, it is difficult for the women to tell what exactly is reality, their reverie engulfing them, a dextrous depiction of the cabin fever the limbo of the centres must engender. Limited in what he can do, kind hearted Carl, battles with his morals and his position as Centre Manager. He understands the frustrations of the women and wants to help and protect them as much as he can, but is inevitably limited himself by the system put in place. Making I and the Village a powerful, emotive and topical story of longing, survival, hope and identity, depicting a system that continues to fail those seeking asylum. The piece also doing much to devolve the vulnerabilities of the women it tells the story of.
Interestingly, I and the Village takes it’s name from Belarusian-French artist Marc Chagall’s cubist, oil painting, which can be described as a series of dreamlike images overlapping each other in a continuous space, the elements forming an integration of Eastern European folktales and culture, both Belarusian and Yiddish. This name therefore perfectly encapsulates Donohue‘s use of converging dreams and fantasies to not only depict the women’s past lives in their villages far away from Ireland, but the overlaps between reality and delusion demonstrating their betwixt and between stasis, a pressure cooker for their past traumas to fester and sense of identity to fade. Furthermore Donohue writes with incredible metaphorical intelligence, for instance time plays a big part in his story. Time is mentioned as passing and we know Jeta and Keicha having been waiting 7 and 8 years for decisions to be made on their applications, but we are never told how much time has passed throughout the story, we get the impression it has been months maybe even years, but that’s all. A stimulating depiction that in their kind of limbo, time means very little, it’s both hard to keep track of, and even if you do try to, you will go insane counting and waiting. Also symbolised by Hannah’s alarm clock, the alarm doesn’t work, referring to the fact that there is no specified end to her time there, no alarm she could even set. She repacks and unpacks her suitcase everyday to remind herself that there is no permanence to her situation. Thus, tenderly and authentically Donohue tangibly brings the stories of asylum seekers to life, from their experiences with violence, unethical policing and sexual assault, to the inhumanity they can face upon seeking refuge, as well as the unique and complex challenges they withstand regarding their mental health. With pre-migration experiences and post-migration conditions constituting as factors towards, and determining asylum seekers and refugees as statistically more likely to develop depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders, than the remaining general population. This excellence in authentic storytelling must also be attributed to the work of Researcher and Dramaturg Matilda Velevitch, ensuring the work is true-to-life, well researched and complex.
Design-wise, Constance Villemot excels. Villemot using a small rostrum to shrink the playing space further, authentically creating a cramped, uninspiring dorm-room decorated with three uniform beds and leaden lockers for any possessions, an adroit, veristic depiction of the dreary reality of the women’s lives. Almost prison-like in nature, magnificently fostering this sense of their entrapment in both the limbo of their reality and their own minds, having little to occupy them as they wait. Anchoring the piece well in this Direct Provision Centre and creating the perfect greying backdrop for the vivid imaginations of the women to take flight. Similarly Chuma Emembolu‘s sound and lighting design is incredibly receptive, doing much build the fantasy worlds, as well as the sharp transcendence back to reality from them. Emembolu contrasting harsh, stark white lighting with colour and vibrancy, whilst building complex soundscapes to aburptly contrast against the silence of the moments seated more in reality.
Velenzia Spearpoint and Rebecca Pryle‘s direction is infallible, doing much to accentuate the wit and intricacies of Donohue‘s script. Their staging is hugely moving, giving the characters great depth, emotional vulnerability and allowing for an immense cognitive empathy to be developed between audience and actor. The piece is therefore highly engaging, whilst the pacing is also spot on, moving adeptly from moments of charming humour, joy and hope, to intensified drama and tragedy in an instant. Moments of fantasy being artistically eased in and out of, giving these instances an overlapping quality to them in order to suggest the women struggle to determine what is truly reality, or at least sometimes they don’t want to, escapism and nightmares intertwining before them. It is also worth mentioning that The Bread and Roses Theatre space is particularly challenging to direct a piece in, owing to its limited and unconventionally placed entranced and exits, yet Spearpoint and Pryle use this to their advantage in situating the piece in the dorm-room, a single door allowing the characters to leave and re-enter, further adding to the suggested cramped nature of their accommodation.
Not only is I and the Village consummately written, directed and designed, the production also bolsters some exceptional performances. Chido Kunene‘s Jeta is wonderfully complex, Kunene charmingly capturing her cantankerous yet affable and empathetic nature, manifesting as a strong-minded, likeable and witty character. The intricacies of Kunene‘s performance dextrously conveying Jeta’s overwhelming desires and ultimate selflessness. Whilst Funke Adeleke proves herself to be a phenomenal actor, her Keicha, a character trapped in both her memories and trauma, is resolutely balanced providing moments of endearing humour, which are expertly transposed into those of disturbing and demented confusion or insistent role-playing. Her malleability of performance gives Keicha tremendous depth, we see her as a severely traumatised, impressionable and abused individual, trapped in her own head, innocent yet unstable. Whilst Adeleke ensures there is a suggested element of danger in Keicha’s instability, demonstrating the character’s overwhelming need of professional help, help she will never accept. An indication of the prevalence of negative societal attitudes towards mental health, particularly in Nigeria. Alongside Kunene and Adeleke, Mark Rush plays the good-natured Carl, with such tenderness, thought and like-ability, Rush demonstrating the ubiquity of his wit by creating this true-to-life, awkward, well-meaning character, competently accomplishing the frustrations and amiability of Carl, a man who really does care and wants to do his best for those in his facility, but is limited by the flawed system. Rush endearingly delivers this character who seems to reject the resentment thrown towards him. Carl becoming a indication that there are those good people out there working to try and make the transitions of asylum seekers as positive as possible, yet he has no actual power over length of time it takes and whether applications are denied or approved, the system being at fault, not necessarily those who are implicated in it. Finally Laide Sonola‘s Hannah, the new arrival, is spirited and full of teenage angst, Sonola consummately conveying the fact that Hannah has inevitably been hardened by her experiences at such a young age, not knowing where her parents even are now, demonstrated by her bitter resentment for friendship and insistence on solitude. Sonola proving herself to be conscientious actor, she expertly divulges the character’s fading spirit as time goes on, as well as her change in desire to play into Keicha’s fantasies, whether that be to pass the time or to break her chosen solitude.
To conclude, I and the Village is meaningful storytelling at its best and is a credit to its hardworking cast and creatives. A completely unmissable production. I and the Village runs until 5th June at The Bread & Roses Theatre, click here to book tickets.
Creatives: Writer: Darren Donohue, Co-Directors: Velenzia Spearpoint and Rebecca Pryle, Researcher and Dramaturg: Matilda Velevitch, Assistant Director: Tom Ward, Producer: Natalie Chan, Set and Costume Designer: Constance Villemot, Sound and Lighting Designer: Chuma Emembolu, Stage Manager: Olivia Pryle, Technical Operator: Daniel Foggo, Creative Producer: Tessa Hart, Assistant Producer: Daniel Cartlidge, Sound and Lighting Trainee: Edmée Duval-Koenig
Cast: Jeta: Chido Kunene, Keicha: Funke Adeleke, Hannah: Laide Sonola, Carl: Mark Rush